The Golden Age

by Gore Vidal

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The cast of characters in this novel is practically endless. The list is comprised of both real-life and fictional participants, including Gore Vidal himself, who makes an appearance at a party thrown by Peggy Guggenheim. Historical figures are brought into fictional being and no doubt enriched by Vidal's experiences meeting the denizens of Washington through his grandfather, Senator Thomas P. Gore. The two main characters of the novel, Caroline and Peter, are fictional, but most everyone with whom they interact are historical figures. The interaction that Vidal presents between real-life and make-believe allows him to play with history and fill in all the juicy bits that we always imagined were there, but which are left out of the history books.

Caroline, a former movie star and a former publisher, allows Vidal to look at both worlds, Hollywood and Washington, with ease. Equally at home in the White House as she is in the very luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel, formerly a participant in both spheres, and now an outside observer by choice, she provides an interesting outlook on the power plays that go on around her. She is more at home in France than in America and while she is forced to remain in the U.S. because of the war, she makes the most of her status as an outsider allowed on the inside of the circle of power. As she moves through the sometimes dangerous waters of Washington and its rumor mill, her age becomes her guide. She holds her emotions and feelings in check, playing the game artfully, perhaps because she no longer needs to play it; it is only for her own amusement that she is even present. She is witty and wry, offering silent commentary for the drama that goes on around her. She pleases herself with her uncompromised view of the very compromising life of Washington politics. She takes everything in stride, including death and despair, and only occasionally breaks down, and only within her own mind. She seems to have the sanity that is sometimes lacking in those around her. She is the voice of reason, which is sometimes ignored, as when Blaise wishes to put his daughter Enid in a sanitarium so his son-in-law can have a clear path into politics. Caroline is true to her feelings. She does not pretend to like her daughter; she in fact, openly despises her, most especially (and perhaps most understandably), when Emma marries Caroline's ex-lover, Timothy Farrell. The strained mother-daughter relationship between Caroline and Emma seems to typify most parent-child relationships in this novel: Blaise feels closest to and enjoys the company of his son-in-law more than his own son or daughter; Enid has a child that is cared for mainly by a nurse; and Caroline seems most at home with her nephew, Peter.

Peter is a kindred spirit to Caroline. He, too, is inside the circle of power because he is the son of the wealthy and powerful (within the publishing world, at least) Blaise Sanford. But his heart lies outside the world of greed and the desire to be on Capitol Hill. This is evidenced by his publication of a leftist newspaper after the war, which of course, puts him on the list of suspicious characters issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is his newspaper, The American Ideal, that Peter feels most connected to, and it is because of this paper that he continually refuses his father's offers to take over the Tribune. He is independently minded and a conscious observer of the interplay between characters around him. In the second half of...

(This entire section contains 737 words.)

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the book, he becomes intensely interested in the concept of an "American Ideal" and goes searching for it. One of the places in which he believes he might have found something close to the American Ideal is New York where he meets the likes of Ferdinand Leger, Tennessee Williams, and Leonard Bernstein. It is here that Peter begins to discover the younger artists and thinkers who are looking to change the shape of American culture after its stagnation during the war. Peter, at this point, seems to join this group, with people like Vidal himself, who find they are seeking a new voice as the generation maturing after the war. By juxtaposing his young self in print with his older self as author, Vidal creates a continuity that one could take as a kind of optimism.